Retail details and fan tales: An interview with Steen Chien

June 1st, 2018


Steen Chien, co-founder of the beloved (but recently closed) Brisbane comics store, Secret Identity Comics. We chat about the inspiration for opening a comics store, their advice for comics creators seeking exposure in retail environments, and a few books which deserve your attention...

If we were knocking back a whiskey or two, how would you describe running a comics shop?

Running a comics shop is a lot more work than people expect. While it’s fun to think you have a personally curated selection of books for your entertainment, it’s just like any other business. There’s still plenty of planning involved, and it’s important to be adaptable and responsive to your customers.

Your store was notable for your support of local indie creators… amid the noise of the major US distributors and publishers, what were good and bad ways indies could get your attention?

It comes back to treating comics and the comics industry with a degree of professionalism. At the end of the day, and to put it very bluntly, we’re in the business of selling comics. It’s all well and good if indie creators publish books because it means something to themselves, but I believe part of a retailer supporting local indie creators is helping them (the creators) make it marketable.

If an indie comics creator wanted to place their marketing in your store, what sort of stuff tended to work well?

A well-crafted pitch for the book that helps it to stand out among the thousand other books we have in stock.

laughing I suddenly realise that I never gave you a pitch for any of my books! Whoops!

What tends to be useful for a retailer in a pitch, assuming a 25-words-or-less limit?

Anything that helps distinguish your work from other stories that might be in the same genre. Knowing your target readership definitely helps too - if you’re not just writing it for yourself, who do you want to read it? That’s an important part in shaping answers for the rest of those questions.

What are some of the practicalities for a creator to consider when asking a retailer if they’ll display posters, postcards, or similar counter-top materials?

Flyers and postcards tend to pass through a lot of hands and people are more likely to notice and take them. Posters depend very much on their placement within the store.

Other than the physical constraints, I think the actual design of promotional materials is sometimes overlooked. A obvious call-to-action is very important to include on whatever you make. If you’re holding a book launch, put the time and place and maybe ask people to follow your social media to generate interest. If you’ve just released a book, include a short blurb so people know what it’s about from a glance. As a retailer, it’s helpful for us to know what we’re helping to promote, too.

What were your goals for Secret Identity Comics when you started out? What was the moment of “fuck it, I’m gonna do this thing”?

Tash (my co-founder) and I first had the idea of starting a comic book store when we were travelling around the US and Canada. We’d seen various stores that were trying to put a twist on a stale stereotype that comic stores were back alley, basement stores and we wanted to bring those concepts here.

There were several notable stores in San Francisco - particularly Isotope, which was like a cool, laid back lounge.

There was Meltdown in LA, although we didn’t try to emulate too much from them, because it was a fucking huge store. It was a cool and amazing place - so sad to hear they’re closing. And Happy Harbour in Edmonton was on-point with their events, which weren’t limited to just comics... they had events like whiskey-tasting (hashtag goals, amirite?). And All Star Comics in Melbourne was a huge inspiration for Secret ID.

We wanted to create a space to change the perception that comic books are more than just DC and Marvel superheroes for fanboys

We wanted to create a space to change the perception that comic books are more than just DC and Marvel superheroes for fanboys. The more we thought about it and the more we saw that there was a market for it, the more found ourselves actually planning it all out, eventually we realised we had a working strategy to start the business.

I imagine sifting through Diamond’s ordering systems would be a gargantuan task?

It put the mental in monumental Diamond’s system is very rigid. Ordering stock two months in advance isn’t especially easy when there’s always something new. Orders had to be placed monthly and while there are always the usual DC and Marvel titles, we tried to branch out as much as possible, and that’s where it got tricky. You can keep up to date with as many creators as possible, but there’s always a title or two that slips through the cracks.

Do you tend to follow a particular comics character, a writer, or artist when choosing new books to read? You’ve mentioned you felt a kind of burn-out regarding reading comics… have you been able to get back into reading stuff yet?

I tend to follow writers and artists. A character can vary drastically depending on who they’re written by... but when I pick up any book by a favourite author, I know I’m likely to enjoy it.

Working in a comic book store for three years has absolutely burnt me out and every panel just looked the same after a while. But I’m still keeping up with the intensely intricate Monstress, I’ve caught up on Motor Crush and the new series, Isola, is only two issues in but looks fantastically promising..

How do you discover new characters, writers, or artists for your own reading pleasure?

When I first got into comics, I definitely followed characters - superheroes are what comics are known for. But then I found myself enjoying particular books more than others, which is when I started looking into the authors and what other titles they write.

Now that I follow writers on Twitter and I know what I look for in writers, it’s easier to figure out which titles I’d be interested in and which ones to pass on.

So when can we expect you to go full video store clerk Tarantino, and announce the development of your comic series?

laughs nervously I’m barely past the point of drawing stick figures.

Grab your preferred music device and set it on random - what are the first five songs it plays? No cheating!

Bring Me The Horizon - Sleepwalking
Rivals - Moonlit
Tonight Alive - The Edge
La Dispute - Andria
Paris - No Mercy

Thanks so much for your time, Steen, and for your support of Sodaville Comics over the past three years. Can’t wait to see your fan-fic script which crosses Welcome to Nightvale with Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs!

Follow Steen on Twitter at @steenium, where they scream a lot about comics, art, food and their cat.

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